The Church: A Forgiven and Forgiving People

When you grasp something of the holiness of God, you come to realize that you can stand before him only as a forgiven people. In Exodus 34:4–7 God reveals to Moses and to you that forgiveness is part of his character. If you, the church, are God’s forgiven people, then you must also be a forgiving people.

Listen to the name of the Lord! You cannot see the face of God and live. In Exodus 34 Moses had just experienced the holy justice of God, his righteous anger against his people. The Lord is a God who is infinitely just. He does not tolerate or overlook disobedience. God holds you accountable for your sin. You cannot escape judgment. That justice of God can be frightening, yet it is comforting. God will not allow the wickedness and rebellion of the world to go unchallenged. And for you, if he has already punished your sins in the person of his Son, he will not, he cannot, still hold you liable. Moses had stepped between God and Israel to serve as a mediator, offering that his name be blotted out of God’s book if he would have mercy on his people. But only the greater Mediator could give his life for his people. Moses asked to see God. But you cannot see God’s face and live. God is a Spirit, as Jesus told the Samaritan woman. The perfection and glory of God precludes anything sinful or imperfect in his presence. He is perfectly holy. Nothing sinful can stand in his presence.

The Lord is merciful, gracious, and forgiving. The Lord did proclaim his name to Moses. The proclamation of the name reveals the character, the nature of the person. Your God is the Lord. That name means “I am,” Exodus 3:13,14. God is who he is. He is not defined by anything or anyone else. Yet his very name reflects his covenantal faithfulness. He is the God who has redeemed his people and has entered into covenant with them. He is the God who graciously sends his Presence with his people, even after the idolatry of the golden calf. “That peculiar sight which Moses had of God (Exodus 34), was a gospel sight, a sight of God as ‘gracious,’ etc., and yet it is called his ‘back parts,’ that is but low and mean in comparison to his excellencies and perfections.” (John Owen, Overcoming Sin and Temptation, edited by Kelly M. Kapic and Justin Taylor, p. 112). As God he is beyond any limitation. He is perfect in all that he is. Although you can never know God exhaustively, you can know him truly. he Lord cannot speak his name to Moses without describing his compassion and graciousness. He is overflowing in love and faithfulness. That character of God is evident as he reveals himself to Moses, the leader of God’s rebellious people. That character is evident as Jesus graciously violates the mores of his culture and asks the Samaritan woman for a drink—and then guides the conversation to confront her with her sin and her need of a Savior.

Know that you are God’s forgiven people in Christ. That grace comes to its richest expression in the presence of the God-man, the Messiah, the One who is God’s Presence. In him you have, not just a temporary glimpse of God’s character, but the full revelation of the depth of the love of your God. “[God’s] full glory would accessible tot he Mediator Christ but could not be seen by anyone in this sinful life. The Mediator would see that glory, but Moses was only a shadow of the true Mediator. . . . Christ is now our Mediator, and in heaven he beholds God’s face. What is there that he cannot do for us?” (S. G. De Graaf, Promise and Deliverance, Vol. 1, p. 308).

Forgive in the name of the Lord. Live as a forgiven community. Every morning and evening sacrifice offered in the Tabernacle and later the Temple, graphically reminded God’s people that they were a forgiven people. Notice how Peter emphasizes that the church in the New Testament is God’s forgiven people. You once stood outside God’s favor and love. By nature you are an enemy of God. Hosea not only had a son named Lo-Ammi (not my people), he also had a daughter named Lo-Ruhamah (no mercy), but their names were later reversed. In order to understand what it is to be the people of God, you have to recognize your sin, your inability. Whether or not you use the term, you have to recognize the idea of total depravity–even if it is expressed simply in the cry of the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Your position is all due to God’s undeserved favor. The initiative in the titles of 1 Peter 2:9 is all God’s. The credit and glory belong to him as well. The mercy you receive is yours in Christ.

Forgive, because you have been forgiven. Peter came to Jesus in Matthew 18:21 recognizing that as a forgiven person he had a responsibility to forgive. He thought he was doing well by suggesting seven times. But Jesus response essentially is, don’t count the times! He went on to tell the parable of the unmerciful servant. Note how Jesus drives home his point in Matthew 18:35. You must forgive—because you have been forgiven. A heart that refuses to forgive is one that stands outside being a recipient of God’s grace. Harboring bitterness eats you up. Jesus is pointing you to the character of God, revealed in himself! He is a God who has forgiven you more than you ever realize. How can you not forgive? But what of the tenderhearted Christian who asks himself, “I find it so difficult to forgive. Am I really forgiven?” Remember that God’s forgiveness of you is not grounded in what you do, even in forgiving. It is grounded in God’s mercy in Christ. In him, he forgives even your failures to forgive! Even Paul struggled with finding himself unable to do the things that he wanted to do. Keep turning to Christ each day.

Live as a forgiven and forgiving people—because you have seen the face of God in Christ Jesus. Moses, who had experienced God forgiving Israel in response to his prayer of intercession asked to see the glory of God (was he showing a Peter-like naivete?). Have you wished you could have stood there with Moses that day? Well, you have experienced something better. You have seen the glory of God in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. What Moses could not see, you have experienced if you trust in Christ! “The grace of God is love freely shown towards guilty sinners, contrary to their merit and indeed in defiance of their demerit. It is God showing goodness to persons who deserve only severity, and had no reason to expect anything but severity.” (J. I. Packer, Knowing God, p. 120). Have you been forgiven? That is a crucial question for you, not just for today, but for all eternity. It is only God’s forgiven people who inherit his kingdom, who dwell in the new heavens and earth.

Why did the Word become flesh? Why did God become man? So that you, his people, his church, could, as his forgiven people, see his face in Christ. How can you not forgive?

The Church: A Holy People in the Presence of a Holy God

“Holy,” applied to things, or to us, means set apart to God. But what does it mean that God is holy? Holiness is the sum of all that he is. He is God, and you and I are not. Hebrews 12:14 calls you, individually and together as the church, to strive after holiness.

Your God is a holy God. Be holy, because God is holy. God entered into covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai, calling them to be his holy people. The latter part of Hebrews 12 looks back to that event. Moses summoned the whole nation of Israel to reflect God’s holiness, Leviticus 19:2. The details of doing justice, including loving your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18) flow out of that. 1 Peter 1:15; 2:9 reflects that principle in the New Testament.

See your thrice holy God. Isaiah’s call to be a prophet (Isaiah 6) centered on his vision of the glory of the Lord filling the temple. The seraphs, fiery angelic beings, cried “Holy, Holy, Holy!” That vision of the utter majesty of God needs to control your life. You ought not to be able to read Isaiah 6 and be casual about coming into God’s presence. “To praise His name in­volves more than the mere repetition of the word qa­dosh [holy-jwm]. It includes deep meditation upon God and His attributes and the living of a life of humility in accordance with the pre­cepts laid down in His Word. It is, in other words, the life of faith in Jesus Christ, lived for the glory of God.” (Ed­ward J. Young, The Book of Isaiah, Vol. 1, p. 243).

Experience his cleansing fire. Isaiah realized, as must you and I, that sinners cannot abide God’s presence. Isaiah became undone, or ruined. There is no way for him or for you to remedy that situation. You cannot be good enough. You cannot do positive things to make up for failures. You are helpless and hopeless, the object of the wrath of a holy God—until he graciously acts. Only as Isaiah’s lips are purified by a burning coal from the altar can he be of any use to God. Unless you know the cleansing, forgiving, work of Christ, you stand as God’s enemy. But if he touches your lips, if he renews your heart, you can live as his people.

Make every effort to be holy. Strive for holiness. Were I to suggest that essential for seeing the Lord is holiness, the reaction might be, “that sounds like basing salvation on works.” We very properly recoil from the suggestion that our works have any meritorious role in our salvation – that was something learned afresh at the time of the Protestant Reformation. And yet Heb. 12:14 tells you: “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” Sanctification is sometimes reduced to simply being fruit and evidence of justification. Scripture treats sanctification as something distinct from, something in addition to, and thus decidedly more than just fruit and evidence of justification. Parallel to repentance, sanctification is never the ground or basis for your justification, but it is something that is an essential part of belonging to Christ. The author of Hebrews is no less clear than Paul that our salvation rests on nothing that we do or are, but only on Christ himself: “He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself” Heb. 7:27.

Pursue peace. The harvest of righteousness and peace flows from the Lord’s discipline. None of us enjoy discipline. Your discipline is evidence that you belong to the Lord’s family. Notice how Hebrews guards his language. You are responsible for making every effort to live at peace–you do not necessarily control the result. Some people resist peace. This is not peace at any price. Your first commitment is to the Lord. Thus you need to pursue holiness as you pursue peace.

Be a holy people. Notice how the theme of being God’s people runs through the whole book of Hebrews. Like Israel, you are a pilgrim people, looking forward to your eternal rest in the new heavens and earth. The pursuit of holiness is both an individual and a corporate responsibility. You need to focus on your own means of grace. But don’t forget that Christ has called you to be his body, his temple, his people. We need one another to make progress in the Christian life. And the more we grow in sanctification, the holier the church becomes. “Sanctification has es­pecial regard to God. Even though the whole world blazes with war, we must not let go of sanctification because it is the chain which binds us in union with God. . . . No one can see God without sancti­fication since we shall only see God with eyes that have been re­newed according to his image.” (John Calvin, Com­mentary on Hebrews, at 12:14).

See the Lord! The Lord is working in you. Certainly your sanctification, your holiness, is motivated by gratitude. Hebrews has just pointed you to the perfect Redeemer, Hebrews 12:2. But if you see justification as God’s work and sanctification simply as your inadequate response, you have missed the point that Hebrews is making. Yes, you are active in sanctification, you pursue holiness. But you do so because God is working in you. Christ renews us by his Spirit. Because holiness is essential to seeing the Lord, the Holy Spirit works in the Christian, shaping him to his glory. Neither works nor even faith are the basis of salvation – the basis is always the perfect obedience of Christ, imputed to the believer. Because holiness is essential to seeing the Lord, Hebrews summons you to strive for it, admonishing you to seek something that God is working in you. And thus both the Scriptures and the Confession can rejoice in the Spirit-wrought good works which are the fruit of sanctification. Perhaps we fail to delight as readily as we should when we see in the lives of God’s people the growth in holiness which flows out of union with Christ. We have a Scriptural imperative to stir one another (and ourselves) up to good works (Heb. 10:24).

Worship in the splendor of his holiness. As you see God’s holiness, as you strive for holiness, what do you end up doing? Worshiping God! Hebrews 12 contrasts your situation with that of Israel at Sinai. God’s revelation of himself on that mountain was awe inspiring. But you have something far better, far more majestic. Notice that Hebrews does not hold out heavenly worship as a future, distant reality. It is something in which you participate now as you gather in God’s presence! Understanding that changes the whole worship experience. Why did you come to church this morning? For fellowship with God’s people? To grow in understanding his Word? Both are good reasons, but they fall far short of the most important one. You are here to worship God. You are here to join the angelic beings and the saints who have gone before you in calling God holy! You are a holy people in the presence of a holy God! “Those who are called to be partakers of God’s holi­ness must be holy them­selves; this is the recurring theme of the Pentateuchal law of holiness, echoed again in the New Testa­ment: ‘Ye shall therefore be holy, for I am holy’ (Lev. 11:45, etc.; cf. 1 Pet. 1: 15.). To see the Lord is the highest and most glori­ous blessing that morals can enjoy, but the beatific vision is reserved for those who are holy in heart and life.” (F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, NICNT, pp. 364-365).

See Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant. In the glorious scene of the assembly in the Jerusalem above, central is Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant. Hebrews has focused on Jesus throughout his book. Now he calls you to be united with him by faith. Where that faith is found, God not only justifies, he also sanctifies his people. All of your salvation is his work. To him be the glory. Where that kind of changed life takes place, people notice. When automatic anger is replace with self-control, not only is Christ honored, but your neighbors see something of his peace-making work in your life. When you stop being the kind of husband or wife who assumes the world revolves around your expectations and instead focuses on serving your spouse and your children, you are seeing the Savior molding you into being part of the cleansed, perfected bride that his church is becoming. Your sanctification, your holiness, is his work in your life.

The believer’s future, perfect sanctification flows out of the Spirit-wrought process of growing in holiness during this life. Already in your daily life you are connected with what will be true in eternity, or to put it more exactly, what is already true of you in Christ. Holiness characterizes the Christian both now (in a true and wonderful way) and in eternity (perfectly) – because Jesus is the crucified and risen Savior. To him be the glory forever!

The Church: Feeding on the Living Bread

What is special about dinner today, Mother’s Day? What is special about the meal we celebrate at the end of the service this morning? How important is that meal in the life of the church? Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 11:23–32, but you also need the background of Exodus 12 and the whole Old Testament.

You are feeding on Christ. Don’t sin against the body and blood of the Lord. The Corinthian love feast had degenerated into chaos. The feast started out as a fellowship meal, but slipped into a combination of hunger and drunkenness. This church (which receives no praise from Paul on this account, v.17) treated the Lord’s Supper as an ordinary meal. The problems here grew out of the party spirit evident earlier in the book. Don’t treat the Lord’s Supper as something superstitious or magical. The doctrine of transubstantiation led to veneration of the elements, which became a form of idolatry. Do not treat the sacrament casually, as Corinthian church did. This is not just an ordinary meal. Do not come merely out of habit or custom. Do not come if you are not trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ. This meal is a proclamation of the Lord’s death. In coming you express your trust in the perfect sacrifice of Christ. If you do not yet trust, wait until you do before you come. If your life contradicts your profession, make getting that straightened out your priority. God does not take lightly the misuse or profaning of his ordinances. The elements, which were intended as a blessing, become symbols of judgment, and involve God’s actual judgment. The church at Corinth had experienced illness, and even the death of some of its members, because of its abuse of the Lord’s Table, verse 30. God intends for you take his warning very seriously.

Positively, recognize the body of the Lord. Those who abused the sacrament in Corinth failed to discern the Lord’s body, verse 29. “Discern” or “recognize” means to distinguish, to identify something as what it really is. They failed to appreciate the significance of the meal and its elements, which represent the crucified Savior. They missed what Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 10, that the one loaf means that we are all part of the same body. You need to recognize yourself as part of Christ’s body. That still involves an understanding of his saving work and its significance for his people—that you, and all other believers, are part of the church because he died and rose for you. Appreciate what Christ did in dying and rising for you. Examining yourself does not mean looking for some special level of spirituality. Rather, the Lord’s Supper calls you to keep short accounts, to deal with sin promptly by repenting and seeking forgiveness, both from the Lord and from others.

Proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Understand the background of the Lord’s Supper. There is a reason that Christ chose the last Passover he observed with his disciples as the setting for instituting the Lord’s Supper. The original Passover began the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. The symbolism in the sacrifice of the lamb, the protection offered by its blood, and then eating that meal to be prepared for the journey ahead was rich. Even as the initial instructions are given, God makes clear that his people are to continue to celebrate this meal annually. It was not just a commemoration of an important event (like celebrating July 4), but was a renewal of being God’s redeemed people. As the Passover was celebrated the participants shared in the “bread of affliction” that had marked their slavery. They were now living as those set free. The Exodus, with its Passover, became the major redemptive event in the Old Testament.

Partake worthily. Perhaps it sounds strange to suggest that you partake worthily. Are any of us worthy to come to the Lord? No! That is the attitude of the Pharisee, rather than that of the tax collector. It is precisely the humble heart that is aware of its own sinfulness and unworthiness that is invited to come to the Lord’s Table. Christ did not institute the meal for those who might be perfect, but for sinners. As you partake, you truly feed upon Christ. The focus is not on what the bread and wine are (as if they somehow change), but on God feeding us with the Living Bread (see John 6). “Now, that sacred partaking of his flesh and blood, by which Christ pours his life into us, as if it penetrated into our bones and marrow, he also testifies and seals in the Supper—not by presenting a vain and empty sign, but by manifesting there the effectiveness of his Spirit to fulfill what he promises. And truly he offers and shows the reality there signified to all who sit at that spiritual banquet, although it is received with benefit by believers alone, who accept such great generosity with true faith and gratefulness of heart.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.17.10).

Look back, at the present, and forward! Look back at the completed work of Christ, entrusting yourself to him, feeding upon him. Right now recognize that you are in fellowship with other believers precisely because of your union with your Lord who gave his body and blood to redeem you. “The Lord’s Supper is a visible sermon in which Christ’s death is vividly proclaimed. This is only possible because of the union and communion with Christ that the Supper entails…. In 1 Corinthians 11…, [Paul] reveals that our participation in the Supper cannot be disconnected from our communion with other believers in the body of Christ. He also emphasizes that the Lord’s Supper is a proclamation of the death of Christ—a message that is at the very heart of the gospel.” (Kieth A. Mathison, Given for You, pages 233, 235). And look forward in time. You proclaim the Lord’s death, but you do so until he comes. This is not just a memorial feast. It is an anticipation of the great heavenly banquet in the new heavens and earth. Every true Passover feast, every true celebration of the Lord’s Supper is a foretaste of that magnificent banquet!

So, do examine yourself. Do recognize that you are part of Christ’s body—and come to the Table where his both the host and the meal. Feed on Christ and live as his people.

The Church: Baptized into Christ and His Body

What does your baptism mean? What does baptism mean for the church? The command to baptize is part of Christ’s Great Commission to his church just before he ascends to heaven. Romans 6:1–14, against the background of Genesis 17, helps you understand how important your baptism is.

Your baptism means that you belong to Christ and his body. God marked Abraham and his descendants as belonging to him. God had made his covenant promises to Abraham earlier in Genesis. Now he give circumcision as the sign and seal of that covenant. This is not just a sign of national identity. It speaks to God’s relationship with his people. They are commanded to circumcise their hearts (Deuteronomy 10:16; Jeremiah 44). A non-Israelite could become one of God’s people, and that involved receiving this sign. At the heart of the covenant is God promising to be a God to his people. The covenant is a relationship, one that is important enough that in both the Old and New Testaments, God himself ordains a sign and seal of that covenant.

In the New Testament baptism distinguishes the body of Christ. As Acts, Galatians, and Romans make clear, in the New Testament, God’s people no longer need to receive that sign. Instead, baptism, as commanded by Jesus—in the name of the triune God—is administered to those who believe. In Romans 6, as Paul points out how contradictory it is to what you are in Christ, he points to your baptism. That baptism marks you as belonging to Christ. In Galatians he says that those who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. Your baptism is a sign and seal of belonging to Christ. Roman Christians were aware of the importance of baptism–Paul can assume they know its meaning and what it seals. (The sacrament is not unimportant or a mere formality.) You are united with Christ. Baptism involves the concept of union. The people of Israel were baptized into Moses (1 Cor. 10:1,2), and Paul rejects the notion that the Corinthians had been baptized into Paul (1 Cor. 1:13)! You are united with the triune God, Mt. 28:19. Don’t separate the work of the three Persons.

Baptism involves God marking you as his. Neither the Old Testament sacrament nor the New Testament one are first of all the believer saying something to God. Sometimes the sign and seal follows a conscious expression of faith, as was the case with Abraham (see Romans 4:11—it is a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith before he received the sign). But other times it was administered, at God’s command, long before the person had conscious faith. Isaac was eight days old when he received the sign. And the New Testament sign is for believers and their children, Acts 2:38–39. On its most basic level, baptism is God saying, this person belongs to me. Don’t water down the force of that just because there are some who receive the sign who ultimately perish. “The first thing that baptism points to and validates is God’s gospel. To the person being baptized, and to all who witness or experience the event, or to all who even consider the symbol, baptism testifies to tot he truth of an enduring promise which God himself made, which he continues to proclaim, and which he continues to honour: it is the promise of redemption for all who trust in Christ alone for their righteousness.” (Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith, p. 366).

Your baptism means that you have died. You have died to the curse and punishment for sin. In Romans 6 Paul makes the point that you must not sin because your baptism says that you died with Christ and were buried with him. Christ’s perfect life of obedience, but particularly his death on the cross as your substitute means that you who are united with him are set free from both the guilt of your sin and its punishment. In Romans 5 Paul made the point that Christ died as the second Adam, as the representative for his people. Appropriately, the New Testament sign involves water (setting aside the amount and the mode of administration for now) with its cleansing properties.

You have died to the enslaving power of sin. Your Lord Jesus Christ died. He died to death, v. 9. Death is past, unrepeatable for him. Christ died to sin, v. 10. Not that Christ ever sinned, but rather that he is no longer in sin’s domain. You too died to sin. Like a prisoner in the Gulag, your only escape from the enslaving power of sin is through death. And that is what happened as you were buried with Jesus in his death. We usually think of sanctification as the process of becoming more holy. While that is biblical, this passage treats sanctification as a definitive act. You died to sin. You are no longer under its power and control. Paul says that is true of you who have been baptized into Christ. You can make progress in your daily growth in grace. You don’t have to go on sinning. As a Christian you can’t say “can’t”! 1 Corinthians 10:13.

Pay attention to the warnings involved in baptism. The Old Testament sign clearly had a warning aspect. It involved cutting with a knife or a sharp piece of flint. But before the cutting in the sacrament in Genesis 17 comes the cutting of the animals in Genesis 15, where the Lord symbolically takes the curse of the covenant upon himself. Only because of God’s faithfulness can Abraham live in covenant fellowship with God. The New Testament sacrament is not bloody, but water does have a judgment aspect. In 1 Peter 3 the apostle ties baptism with the judgment water of the flood. Christ sufferings were his baptism (Mark 10:38), and because he went through that, you can be his people. Appreciate the blessing of your baptism, but remember that it is a warning as well, summoning you to faithfulness to your Lord.

Your baptism means that you have been raised with Christ. You are a new creation! You live a new life. You will live, v.8, and you do live, v.11. Your former way of life must be put off, v.12. Your baptism means that you have put on Christ. You are united with him in his resurrection.

You have been set free to serve your Lord. Christ was raised through the glory of the Father. His glory is his majesty, the sum of his perfections. This is brought to bear in raising up Christ. The Father’s raising of the Son vindicates him. You share in that glorious vindication as you are united to Christ. The Lord, with whom you are united, sits in glory at the right hand of the Father. You belong to him. You are part of his body. Your baptism reminds you that it is true. “As surely as Christ rose from the dead so surely shall we walk in newness of life.” (John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, Vol. 1, p. 216).

Take hold of the blessings of your baptism! Your baptism tells you that you belong to God. Remember that when you are tempted. Take hold of it when you are discouraged. God gave you the seal to assure you that he is your God and that he is utterly faithful. Children, you may not remember when you were baptized, but your baptism calls you to live as someone who belongs to Christ, trusting yourself to him and him alone, living to serve and glorify him. Focus on the heart of what baptism is. It may be helpful, as you go through trials and temptations, to remember that you have entrusted yourself to God, that you believe in him. But it is a far greater thing to remember that it is not first of all you speaking, but rather God saying, “You belong to me. I am with you. I care for you. I have made you part of the body of my Son, and because of him, you are precious to me. “Baptism is most basically and universally—just as circumcision was—about the works and the righteousness of Another, and not about the righteousness of ourselves. The enduring importance of baptism rests in what it always says about God and his gospel, and not what it sometimes says about the person who is baptized.” (Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith, p. 367).

Your baptism tells you that when Jesus died, you died with him. You no longer belong under the power and domination of sin. Your baptism tells you that when Jesus was raised, you were raised with him to a new life. It challenges you to live this week as someone who is really alive in Christ.